Federal program offers free cellphones to qualified low-income Californians


Landline customers have been paying an FCC-approved fee every month for decades to subsidize phone service for the poor. That's now expanding to cellphone service.

Karry Karpe is homeless. When she needs to call someone, the shelter has a landline with limited features she and others can share during business hours to keep in touch with friends, family, doctors and job prospects.

"They have a free phone there, but you can only call certain places. Long-distance, you can't call," said Karpe.

Starting this week, Assurance Wireless is making available free cellphones to low income Californians. An estimated 4.6 million households are eligible.

Only those on Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, Medicaid or other public assistance programs, or anyone earning less than $15,000 a year, qualify.

It's a basic phone with 250 minutes of talk and 250 texts allowed per month. More is available to buy.

"When you save money without having to pay for phone service, now those funds can be used to pay rent, to take care of children, to pay for heat, to pay for groceries," said Assurance Wireless spokesman Jack Pflanz.

The federal program, called Lifeline Assistance, was initially funded by landline customers who pay a small monthly fee into the Universal Service Fund Fee.

In turn, poor and rural residents could have a phone.

When cellphones came on the market, the fee was put on those bills too and now pays for free cellphone service in 39 states.

The administrators of the fund say it's possible for that fee to increase with this latest expansion, a prospect that upsets some cellphone customers.

"I think they should give people homes and not phones, pretty much. Why are you trying to charge me more for my phone?" said cellphone customer Chantelle Lee.

Given the Universal Service Fund has helped so many seniors on limited incomes maintain a landline in the past, others feel a small fee increase is OK to help the needy in today's world.

"There aren't pay phones anymore. There's no way for people to communicate. So it's just one of the basics of life now, it seems, so I'm for it," said cellphone customer Pat Norberg.

Karry Karpe is ready to sign up.

"I think that's a great program," said Karpe. "There's a lot people that can't afford the phones."

Homeless advocates say the free cellphones will also enable people to call shelters beforehand to see if beds are available instead of walking for miles, only to be turned away.

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